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Perceptions of Stress

An article on emotional eating (What’s Your Relationship with Food? by Karen Collins, RD, American Institute for Cancer Research, at and Fitness) focuses on the possible causes of emotional eating. Collins describes one school of thought which maintains that it’s caused by dieting and deprivation, ie, the rebound effect. She also explains that people who head for the Häagen-Dazs when they’re upset may have faulty perceptions of stress, meaning they work themselves into a tizzy when they don’t really need to. While it’s old news to most of you that chronic dieting and food restriction lead to overfocusing on food and overeating, you may not have considered that how you perceive stress and your ability to cope with it is a major cause of emotional eating.

As a cognitive-behavioral therapist, I’ve known, written, and talked about this link for decades. Irrational thinking leads to irrational behavior; rational thinking leads to rational behavior. Of course, biochemistry also plays its part in the process, and people who are depressed and anxious because they lack an adequate balance of neurotransmitters will feel not only more intense emotions, but have difficulty calming themselves down when they’re upset. Still, at the root of the problem is our perception of stress and, as the article points out, our particular understanding and perspective of our ability to cope.

Some people view life as an adventure and will try almost anything once. They don’t much care if they do it right and don’t get bent out of shape when things go wrong (as they inevitably will). They’re not upset when life isn’t perfect because they don’t expect it to be. They don’t get stressed out when they make mistakes because they’re not all that attached to outcomes. Other people feel stressed because they have faulty assumptions about life and themselves: they must be perfect, never make mistakes, need to be in control, have to be liked, can’t fail, must win, should succeed. Nonsense! This perception itself is stressful, never mind when life throws a curve ball.

Think about what gets you stressed and what you believe you and life should be like. Imagine having a healthier set of assumptions that are more realistic. It’s often too late to handle stress effectively in the moment—to make yourself take a walk, call a friend, or do deep breathing rather than eat or obsess about weight. It’s far easier to change your beliefs so that you don’t perceive events as stressful or perceive them as only minor stresses. Changing your perceptions of stress requires motivation, effort, time, and oodles of practice. But I guarantee it will help reduce emotional food abuse.